Sunday, September 22, 2013
Why I Am Not Turning the Pages of This Novel
Recently I posted about why I found a novel to be a true page-turner. I'm gratified so many authors found it helpful.
So I thought I'd share today the opposite type of experience: reading a mediocre novel I will not finish. (See also Friday's question and comments).
I'm not going to name the book, because I don't believe in running down fellow authors. Nor will I quote anything verbatim. But I do think there are some important lessons to be learned.
1. An Opening Without Disturbance
The first-person narrator of this crime novel is moving through a setting, describing it, and then getting in a car and moving some more, then getting to another location and getting out of the car, and then talking to some people. This is, by definition, action. But it does nothing to hook the reader. Why? Because there's no trouble, or even a portent of it.
What hooks a reader faster than anything else is when a character's "ordinary world" is disturbed in some fashion. It doesn't have to be big, like a gun fight or car chase. It just has to be something that sends ripples through the normal life of the character and makes us, the readers, wonder how the character is going to handle it. And that disturbance should happen on page one. I wrote more on the subject here.
2. A Voice Without Attitude
The key to narrative voice is attitude. This is especially true in the case of first-person POV. We have to feel we're in the hands of a character who has blood rushing through the veins, who is passionate about something, anything. The voice has to be unique, not plain vanilla. We need to sit up right away and take notice, because the narrator catches our attention:
When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ‘em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants.
That's Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum in High Five. This is a voice I am interested in hearing from. I will note, too, that the second paragraph on page one is a disturbance. There's a reason Evanovich is so successful.
3. A Cast Without Distinction
The supporting characters in this novel are what they used to call "stock." There's the cop who seems like every other cop. There's a buddy who seems like every other buddy. And so on.
If your secondary characters are not what I call "spicy," you have missed one of the prime opportunities to make your novel a page-turner. You can avoid this by simply rejecting the first picture that comes to your mind, and making list of five, six or seven unique alternatives in terms of looks and speech patterns.
4. A Setting Without Menace
It's one thing to describe a setting. It's another to have the setting operate like another character, with potential conflict infused therein. In my book, Conflict & Suspense, I have a section on setting, and include this clip from Gregg Olsen’s Victim Six:
Even in the midst of a spring or summer’s day with a cloudless sky marred only by the contrails of a jet overhead, the woods of Kitsap County were always blindfold dark. It had been more than eighty years since the region was first logged by lumberjacks culling the forest for income; now it was developers who were clearing the land for new tracts of ticky-tacky homes. Quiet. Dark. Secluded.
Notice the words Olsen chooses: marred, blindfold dark. Quiet. Dark. Secluded. It's right after this that the killer comes on the scene, and then the cops, and then everybody dealing with a setting of menace.
City or country, rural or populated, every setting holds the possibility not just for conflict between characters, but for being part of the conflict itself.
5. A Narrative Without Surprises
I'm stressing this more and more in my workshops. As I consider the fiction that I can't put down, and that stays with me after I'm finished, it's this element of the unexpected that keeps popping up in my mind. If I keep guessing what's going to happen next, and it does, that's called predictability. And predictable equals dull.
The late Elmore Leonard said not to write the parts readers skip. This novel had too many of those parts. So I put it down.
One final note: This was a self-published novel. It wasn't terrible. The sentences were strung together so I could follow the story. But that's not enough in this brave, new world. In fact, it never has been. As one veteran editor at Penguin put it, the kind of manuscripts they really have to watch for––in order to reject them––are those that are "skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable."
Don't settle for competent.
I'll be teaching on how to get to unforgettable fiction at two major conferences coming up. This week it's in Los Angeles at the Writer's Digest national conference. I'm doing a 3-hour session on Friday called "Writing a Novel They Can't Put Down." Also a class on "Dazzling Dialogue" on Saturday.
In November, I'll once again be with Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler for the big, four-day Story Masters, Nov. 7-10, in Minneapolis. Hope to see some of you there!